The ancient red dragon slams down onto the cave floor, the force of its impact disturbing its hoard and sending treasure flying. You and your party aren’t afraid – you’ve slewn dragons before. It starts the fight by breathing a plume of flames towards you and your companions. Scorched but still standing, you begin to fight, scoring hits with arrows and blades. Seconds later, it opens its maw again, coating the cave in liquid fire. And then 6 seconds later, the dragon does this again, and then again…
Welcome to Dissecting D&D 5e, a series of articles that analyze the design of fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons.
Before we begin, let me say that I love fifth edition. It’s accessible, easy to get into, and the community is wonderful. These articles are intended to help explore some design elements behind fifth edition, and to help Game Masters (GMs) customize mechanics to better suit their tables.
First up, let’s talk recharge! Recharge lets certain monsters re-use their strongest abilities
This Ancient Red Dragon has a Fire Breath which recharges on a roll of 5 or 6.
Recharge is added to powerful signature monster abilities, such as an Ancient Red Dragon’s Fire Breath or a Mind Flayer’s Mind Blast. The monster will generally want to use this ability to start combat as often as possible. Recharge typically prevents the monster from using the ability every turn, and most Recharge abilities refresh 33% of the time.
The Ancient Red Dragon deals an average of 69 damage on its turn if it hits with its bite and claw attacks. It deals 91 damage per player character (PC) who fails its Fire Breath attack (and a dragon can normally catch two or more PCs in its cone, especially if it takes to the air.) Like most other Recharge abilities, it’ll want to use this as often as possible.
Recharge adds tension to a fight and makes fights unpredictable. It’s exciting for both GM’s and players! Will you be able to kill the dragon before its fire breath recharges?
However, there are a few downsides to using monsters with this ability:
- Variable Difficulty. If a monster with Recharge can use its strongest ability every round, it can be way deadlier than intended. Alternatively, the monster is significantly hamstrung if the ability doesn’t recharge. The Dungeon Master’s Guide has a table with suggested monster damage for making your own monsters. If only using its claw and bite attacks, the Ancient Red Dragon’s offensive output would be at the suggested amount for a CR 11 creature! Conversely, if the dragon caught three PCs per turn in its Fire Breath, the damage output would be at a suggested difficulty of CR 28! That’s a massive difference that could easily result in an unintended “total party kill” (TPK).
- No Narrative Ties to Ability Use. Why does the Ancient Red Dragon use its flame breath twice and then suddenly, never again in a fight? Or why does the Mind Flayer use its psionic blast only once, when other Mind Flayers can do it multiple times in a fight?
- Lack of Variety. Recharge is usually tied to a monster’s most exciting abilities. If that ability isn’t available, is the monster still interesting to fight? A creature that spends its turns doing melee attacks is generally not an exciting solo opponent.
Alternative Recharge Mechanics
If you’re designing your own monsters, you can either use Recharge or a different mechanic of your choosing. It’s your game! Here are some alternate options to Recharge that you can use. You can either tweak existing monsters to include these mechanics, or you could design new ones that take advantage of them.
Cooldown 2: After a monster uses this ability, it can’t use it again until 2 rounds have elapsed.
Having an ability tied to Cooldown rather than Recharge makes the damage output predictable. This is both good and bad — it lessens the chance of a TPK, but can make a fight less exciting. On the other hand, it helps to guarantee that a monster will use a variety of attacks, rather than using its recharged ability constantly (or only once per fight).
Cooldown can work better than Recharge when used on abilities that disable characters. A Mind Flayer’s Mind Blast can stun characters, and it can do so multiple times in a row if it rolls well. Fun for the Mind Flayer, but not very much fun for your players who get stunned! If the Mind Blast was based on a Cooldown instead, this would ensure your players get to still take turns rather than being chain-stunned.
- +Regular, predictable damage
- +Varies monster attacks
- -No tension or unpredictability
Recharges on ____
Recharges at Half Health (Bloodied): This ability can be used again once a monster is at half its hit points or less.
Having a monster’s ability recharge on specific conditions gives you a ton of flexibility in design. If an ability recharges when the monster reaches half health, it guarantees that the monster will be able to use its ability exactly twice. This helps to limit the creature’s damage output, while still showing off the cool recharge ability. You could have a number of different recharge conditions, including:
- Recharges when one of the monster’s allies dies
- Recharges when the monster takes a critical hit
- Recharges when the monster takes fire damage (or other specific types of damage)
- Recharges when the monster is subjected to a negative condition
Using this mechanic for Recharge gives you a lot of flexibility, helps you to match a monster’s mechanics to its behaviors, and can give you extra control on when a monster can use its abilities. This can be a little more difficult to design than other Recharge abilities, since you have to put extra thought into what the recharge conditions are.
A word of warning: I would caution having an ability recharge when a PC is downed, as this can lead to death-spiral fights.
+Encourages monster to act in ways that match its temperament; builds story into design
+More predictable recharging, possibly preventing wild damage swings
-Extra work to design
-Possibly never recharges ability depending on recharge condition, or only recharges once when a fight drags on
Energy Points (Ability Points)
3 Energy Points: This monster gains 3 Energy Points at the start of its turn. Its Flame Breath attack costs 4 Energy Points.
Having Energy Points or Ability Points is the most complex of the Recharge mechanics in this article, but also the most flexible. You can have the monster gain energy points at the beginning of each round, and then have each of its cool abilities cost energy to use. You can have actions, bonus actions, or reactions, all cost energy, and then it can choose how to spend its Energy Points. This limits the amount of high-damage or high-impact actions a monster can do, while still giving it a variety of options. (If the monster only has one ability it uses Energy Points for, then this will be effectively the same as giving it a cooldown instead.)
You could have the monster start at max Energy Points or have it charge up over the fight if you want to portray a sense of increasing threat. Alternatively, you could combine this with the “Recharges on ____” Recharge ability, but that’s probably a level of complexity that’s unnecessary for most monsters. (An example might be a Redcap that gains an Energy Point whenever it hits a creature and sheds blood.) You could also have it gain 1d4 Energy Points at the start of each of its turns if you wanted to make it less predictable.
If a monster needs energy points for multiple abilities, it makes that monster harder to run in combat. Additionally, monsters that use this ability are a bit harder to design and test.
- +Limits monster damage output
- +Provides options
- -Encourages monster to use all strongest abilities immediately, increasing deadliness and lowering variances
- -Usually one “best” option for monsters to use
Other Notes on Recharge
The other element to consider when designing a Recharge ability is how the monster acts when it has its Recharge ability versus when it does not. In the case of the Ancient Red Dragon, its lethality and coolness in a fight are greatly reduced when it doesn’t have its Fire Breath available. Take this into account when designing monsters with these abilities. If they don’t have their Recharge ability active, are they still cool to fight? Do they still present a threat to parties?
I would recommend smoothing out the power curve of monsters slightly between when they have their recharge abilities and when they don’t. If I were to change the Ancient Red Dragon, I would tone down the damage of the Fire Breath ability and increase the damage of its melee attacks to make the fight less swingy.
Finally, I would point out that many combats only last about 3-4 rounds, but that this heavily depends on the scenario. Take the monsters’ survivability into account when designating a Recharge ability — a short fight might prevent a monster from using a Recharge 5-6 ability or a Cooldown 3 ability twice in one combat.
Tying it All Together
So, given all this, which system would I recommend? Well, any and all of them! You’ll want to pick the type of mechanic based on the overall feel and flavor of the monster. Here are some examples:
- Recharge 5-6: Fits an unpredictable creature like a Demon or wild-magic Fey.
- Recharges on Cooldown: Fits constructs well, such as an Iron Golem.
- Recharges on Half Health (Bloodied): Fits creatures that are cornered or weaker, such as a Mammoth or other beast. An ability that Recharges when an ally dies might fit a Berserker-type creature well.
- Energy Points: A sorcerer spellcaster that can use its Energy Points to fuel different metamagic options.
If you vary the type of Recharge ability your monsters use, it also helps to prevent metagaming, since your players won’t know exactly how each monster works.
Below is a table that can help you decide when to use which mechanic.
|Type of Recharge||When to use||Feeling it evokes||Downsides|
|Normal Recharge||Creatures with signature abilities||Creatures that need a few seconds to rest in between sprints||Variable damage|
|Cooldown||When you want predictable damage||Constructs or magic items that take time to recharge||No variation, less exciting|
|Recharges on ____||Creatures with specific narrative elements||Depends on when the ability recharges||Extra design work|
|Energy Points||Creatures with multiple ability options you want to choose from||A tactical creature||Harder to design, potentially less variance|
That wraps up my look at Recharge for today! Let me know if there are any other Recharge abilities that you’ve used in your games, and if there are any other similar abilities that you’d like to see dissected next!
Article written by Xhango Games (Twitter: @xhangogames)
All art copyright of Wizards of the Coast and used under the fan creation policy.